• Eldon Peterson

The Problem of Religious Hypocrisy


No one likes a religious hypocrite –those with a “holier than thou” attitude. They represent everything that Jesus opposed. In Matthew 23, Jesus warns the Pharisees with the seven woes of hypocrisy. While it is easy to point our fingers at them, we must realize how we too can fall into religious hypocrisy.

The first "woe" Jesus speaks to them is how they “shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces.” (13) They made the way to heaven more difficult than it was. Rather than embracing Jesus’ teaching that all that is needed is faith, they taught of a God who was impossible to please, whose commands were impossible to obey, and made heaven seem to be an impossible goal.

Maybe you’ve heard similar teaching that requires us to do more religious works than can be done. Jesus warns how this is evil; it is contrary to the gospel of grace. We must simply believe, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)

The second woe warns, “You travel over land and sea to make one proselyte, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are!” (15) While their missionary efforts sought to “save,” in the end, the people were worse off than when they started. Those attracted to the Pharisees’ teaching were like many today; they were not attracted to God but to a religious system that promises them exaltation by rule keeping. Those caught up in the details of the Pharisees' additional laws and regulations completely missed God to whom the laws pointed.

The third "woe" concerned their misuse of oaths. They sought loopholes and were like the child crossing their fingers when they make a promise. Jesus wonders how "swearing by" something greater than themselves can make a liars word believable. Rather, as Jesus said earlier, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matt. 5:37)

The fourth "woe" points to their hypocrisy concerning their lack of mercy. They emphasized the smallest details of the law while ignoring the larger, far more important issues. We too know what this is like; we can be tempted to pick and choose which commandments need to be obey in order to declare ourselves righteous. However, scripture plainly testifies that we are only righteous in God’s sight if obey ALL the commandments. We need mercy not obedience because, “As Scripture says, “No one is righteous— not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

The fifth "woe" focuses on what makes one righteous. The religious will focus on the external, measurable things. Many are drawn to this because it gives measurable goals that not only tell us how we are doing but also allows us to feel good about our righteousness when compared to others. We can feel good about our spiritual walk according to how often we go to church, how much money we give, how we dress and our church jobs. However, Jesus warned that these external things are meaningless. They may be good, but they have nothing to do with righteousness. Jesus says that the key is to have our hearts made clean.

The sixth "woe" describes the Pharisees as whitewashed tombs. This graphic picture of the religious hypocrite tells how they appear white and beautiful on the outside while they are full of death and decay on the inside. Jesus tells the religious that it is a heart made righteous by Him not outward righteous deeds pleases God.

The final "woe" concerns outward religious acts, specifically their honoring of the prophets’ graves. This was ironic since these martyrs were killed by the religious leaders of their day. Jesus confronts them saying that they were no different from their ancestors who had killed God's messengers for they were plotting to kill Him. In essence Jesus was saying, "Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started; kill me too!"

Peace with God cannot be found in “religion” but by having faith in God’s promises. That, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)


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